Community Education Sports

Incoming district athletic director has plenty to say about sportsmanship

Posted on June 6th, 2024 By:

Meet Peninsula School District’s new director of athletics and activities.

Wendy Malich, current athletic director for Franklin Pierce School District, starts July 1 in a newly created, “centralized” AD position for the district. Athletic directors at Peninsula and Gig Harbor high schools will remain in their roles.

Malich has been at Franklin Pierce for 37 years. Her career there included stints as a teacher and coach, AD for Washington High School, and since 2004 as FP’s first and only district AD. Since 2006, she has served on the executive board of the WIAA, the organization governing rules for high school sports and activities statewide.

Malich has won numerous career awards at the local, state and national level. In 2022, the Tacoma Athletic Commission honored her with its Doug McArthur Lifetime Achievement Award.

Her career as an athlete includes track and field (she broke the 400 hurdles record at Western Washington University and was a two-time All-American in that event), cheerleading (also in college, and was a cheer coach for almost 20 years), and amateur bodybuilding (her last competition was in 1989, when she was 28).

Wendy Malich, incoming athletic and activities director for the Peninsula School District, broke the 400 hurdles record at Western Washington University and was a two-time All-American in that event at national competitions.

Roots in Gig Harbor

Malich lives in Gig Harbor and has deep roots here. Her great-grandparents were Croatian immigrants with descendants throughout the area. Her dad, Marco, was a longtime baseball coach at Peninsula High School.

Malich was in the last graduating class of Peninsula High when it was the only high school in town. That was before Gig Harbor High opened and before Fish Bowl — the big, annual football game between the two schools. Malich has been around so long she knows the Fish Bowl origin story.

She wasn’t at Fish Bowl 2023, but she’s well aware of the debacle it became, marred by tension between both sides that erupted into a near-riot.

Fun fact: Malich holds a second job, working security for Mariners and Seahawks games, and for big-name concerts at Lumen Field. So, yeah, event safety, crowd control, that kind of thing.

Malich has plenty to say about sportsmanship and at least one new initiative to promote healthy competition. More on that later.

An administrative shuffle

Peninsula School District picked Malich for the district AD position from among 38 candidates.

“Wendy has extensive experience in this exact role from her time at Franklin Pierce,” said PSD spokeswoman Danielle Chastaine on behalf of the district. “She’s won many awards and has been a steadfast leader in school sports.”

Wendy Malich, current athletic director for Franklin Pierce School District, was selected from among 38 candidates to be Peninsula School District’s new “centralized” athletic director. Her hiring signals a shift for Peninsula, which previously had a district AD who also served as athletic director and football coach at Peninsula High School.

Creating a centralized AD position was part of a larger administrative realignment undertaken this spring at the direction of Superintendent Krestin Bahr.

“This will broaden our athletic and activities program in both secondary and elementary schools,” Chastaine said. “Having one centralized department will be able to help support and assist all schools in our district, while allowing each school to manage their athletic and activities scheduling. This includes athletics, community use of the pool, music and art events, and more.”

‘Aligned with best practices’

As it stands now, Peninsula’s current athletic director, Ross Filkins, is also the AD for Peninsula High School and the school’s head football coach.

According to Chastaine, Bahr’s goal with regard to leadership positions has been to “align our district with the best practices exemplified by other local school districts.”

While it’s not uncommon for smaller districts to have a high school AD also in charge of district athletics and activities, most larger districts in the region have a centralized AD. Peninsula has around 9,000 students.

Filkins will remain in his role as PHS AD and head football coach. Blair Suek will remain AD for Gig Harbor High School. “No changes are expected at this time,” Chastaine said.

New chain of command

The details of who will manage coaches, set game schedules, arrange transportation to events and handle team budgets is something the athletics and activities staff will work out when Malich arrives, according to Chastaine.

Malich agrees the logistics are TBD. That said, she’ll bring with her experience of what’s worked at Franklin Pierce (with around 7,000 students). All scheduling and transportation details there are administered through her office. The distribution of uniforms and supplies is also centralized.

Wendy Malich was all-state in track and field when she competed for Peninsula High School. She will soon begin work as the Peninsula School District’s new athletic and activities director.

“I have two high schools, two middle schools, and so we make sure that everybody has the uniforms at the right rotation and that all comes out of my budget,” Malich said. “My secretary is the point person for any athletic trip, any official needs, she’s the only one that talks to the transportation person. I don’t know if that will be a model that we’ll use in Peninsula but it works really well.”

At Franklin Pierce, high school ADs screen and select coaches, but Malich tries to attend every head coach interview, and she has the final say on who’s hired. At games, she said, “My main focus is to watch the coaches coach. I want to see how they interact with kids and officials, parents.”

Kids are “our customers”

Malich loves Franklin Pierce School District. At what some might consider the pinnacle of her career, she wasn’t looking to make a move. But when she heard about the opening at Peninsula, something tugged at her.

“There are challenges that I still feel like are in my wheelhouse,” Malich said. “And instead of just kind of going out in a year and saying goodbye. I said let’s make an impact on my own community.”

Her driving motivation?

“It’s always been kids first,” she said. “Kids are the changemakers. They’re our customers and are the ones we need to help cater to. So, kids only have four years in high school. We want to make that the best experience for them.”

The role of an athletic director has to be both big-picture focused and down in the weeds, Malich said.

“In essence, some days all we’re doing is putting out fire and fire after fire,” she said. “A bus doesn’t show up, an official doesn’t show up. … I never know what’s going to be in my inbox.”

As for the big-picture stuff, equity and sportsmanship are high on her priority list, although she thinks “sportsmanship” is overused, a “catch-all. It’s really about building relationships, she said.

The Fish Bowl origin story

Malich is not shy to talk about Fish Bowl. She was not at the 2023 game, but as a Gig Harbor resident, she’s aware of the underlying tensions.

“I think there’s been some challenges in the community between the two high schools,” she said. “You know (before Gig Harbor High opened in 1979) this community was one community around one high school (Peninsula High). And everybody supported that high school. Everybody in the community, and it was a big deal. Well, now we have two high schools and everybody needs to support both high schools. We have to come together as a community and support these children that are doing all they can to become adults.”

Malich remembers the origin of the friendly rivalry game and how it got its name.

“When Fish Bowl first started, the Gig Harbor fishermen used to do a dinner before the game,” she said. “And they’d have it in the Peninsula cafeteria, and they’d invite both sides of the district, and it was a fundraiser for scholarships. It was a great time. And so, the community came together to have that meal together and then go out and have the game.”

‘Captains’ Council’

Peninsula School District is certainly not the only community where cross-town (or cross-district) rivalry has crossed the line, Malich said. In her experience on the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association executive board, however, it’s not common.

Franklin Pierce has had its own sportsmanship challenges. Early in her term as district AD, Malich formed the Captains’ Council, a coalition of students from both of the district’s high schools, with the goal of building relationships.

Wendy Malich, incoming district athletic and activities Director for Peninsula School District, established the Captains’ Council at Franklin Pierce School District, where she is currently the longtime district AD. The council undertook service projects as a way of fostering relationships between the district’s two high schools, including a trip to Nicaragua to help an impoverished village install a well some years back. Here she is shown with one of her students.

They’ve done service projects and fundraisers together. She’s picked the students’ brains. One group called for higher standards on academic, and drug and alcohol policies. At the Helmet Bowl, Franklin Pierce’s version of Fish Bowl, both cheerleading squads and both bands perform together at halftime.

Equity across programs

The Captains’ Council is one initiative Malich will bring with her to Peninsula. “It’s been very successful for me to find out the opinions of the kids,” she said. “I just love meeting with kids, and that will be something that will probably be one of my first and foremost priorities.

“The other thing is making sure that the schools feel like they’re both important, the two high schools, that they don’t feel like one’s getting more than the other but bringing equity to this district across the district.”

She’ll also support activities across the board, whether it’s the football program or the anime club, “wherever two or more are gathered, we’ll make it work” (within budget constraints), she said. And where wants exceed needs, there are always … fundraisers.

A change of venue

Peninsula School District has been working to promote healthy competition. Student leaders have been integral to the effort, which paid off earlier this year in a spirited but sane Fish Basket basketball tournament between the two high schools. Malich thinks they’re “absolutely on the right track.

The district has switched the location of Fish Bowl this fall to Mount Tahoma High School.

“It will be interesting to bring our people out of the community to go someplace else to have this game,” Malich said.

She wouldn’t oppose bringing the game back in-house, someday. But she recognizes that Roy Anderson Field has capacity issues. The possibility of replacing or renovating the stadium is just starting to be discussed among a broad swathe of facilities questions, Chastaine said. So, no quick fix there.

“Not only is sportsmanship a high priority for me, but safety and security is very high,” Malich said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have it there (at home), but I think that we need to have a plan for it if we ever bring it back there, and I’m not sure what that is.”

Malich expects to work with Peninsula’s security staff on making events safe, while keeping them fun for the athletes and fans. “There’s got to be a balance,” she said.

‘A beautiful community’

Malich has learned from hard experience that cultivating healthy competition is not a one and done. She’s seen Franklin Pierce cycle through highs and lows as new groups of students, parents and coaches join the ranks. “Sportsmanship is something you have to teach every year,” she said. Like housekeeping and dust bunnies … “You know, you’ve got to keep picking them up because they keep appearing.”

Malich is optimistic for the future of Fish Bowl and the district as a whole.

“This community is a beautiful community,” she said. “We need to come together and support our kids. It’s fine to have healthy rivalries, but when the rivalries become detrimental that’s when we start to break up our community…. I think there’s a way to bring it back around to make it a fun event. At least that’s my hope. And I hope that’s what I’m tasked to do.”